Thursday, July 14, 2011

What Makes a Good Writing Workshop? by Cricket McRae, Guest Blogger

It is my pleasure to present Cricket McRae, a Northern Colorado mystery writer who's not only experiencing great success with her Home Crafting Mystery Series from Midnight Ink but now has a contract from Penguin for a brand new series.

In addition to her own website and blog linked below, Cricket also blogs at
Inkspot with other Midnight Ink authors.

Welcome back, Cricket.


What Makes a Good Writing Workshop? by Cricket McRae, Guest Blogger

Thank you so much for hosting me, Pat!

As my fifth Home Crafting Mystery, Wined and Died, hits the shelves (and Kindles and Nooks), I’ve just finished the first Bewitching Bakery Mystery for Penguin and have begun work on Sophie Mae’s sixth adventure, Digging Up Darla. It’s a busy time, but I’m immensely grateful to be able to do this work.

I worked for a long time to get published, the standard ten years plus a bit, and during that time I spent a lot of time writing and a lot of time learning. Much of what I learned came from workshops and classes. Some were very helpful. Others, not so much. Here are a few tips for what I think makes a writing workshop useful and worthwhile.

Make sure the instructor knows that they’re talking about – and how to talk about it. This is perhaps the most important element of a good workshop. Not every writer knows how to teach well. And not all know exactly how they go about creating, but that may not stop them from trying to tell you. One of my favorite workshops ever was taught by Stewart Stern, who wrote the screenplay for Rebel Without a Cause and the teleplay for Sybil among a whole slew of other things. In three weekend intensives that lovely, eighty-something man pushed us so far into our stories and characters that I broke down and wept. Yes, that’s a good thing.

Good instructors couch criticism in a useful way, never put you down, make all the participants behave nicely, and encourage creativity. They answer questions, can handle writers of various skill levels, will examine your work and provide useful feedback.

Attend workshops and classes that are on your writing level and about your interests. If you are a beginner and take advanced classes you will learn – but not as much as you would if you were ready for those lessons. If you’ve written for years, taking a beginning class will be boring and you’ll feel like you’re wasting your time.

Regarding interests, one time I took a workshop from a highly lauded literary writer, and he wouldn’t even read my “genre submission” (said as if the phrase tasted like sour milk). I reported him to the writing organization who sponsored him and got my money back. On the other hand, I loved and learned from the Advanced Fiction Certificate classes at the University of Washington, and am still in contact with some of my fellow class members. Everyone there was serious about writing commercial, genre fiction.

Having said that, be willing to go outside your comfort level. Sometimes that means going outside your usual medium. If you write books, try taking a screen writing class. If you write fiction, try a class on narrative nonfiction. Some of the most beneficial things I learned about language, sensory detail, and atmosphere in writing came from a nature writing workshop that involved camping for three days in a yurt.

Be ready – and willing – to take criticism. It can be hard to hear, but criticism can be very, very helpful, and you can learn a lot from it. First, make sure you fully understand what the other person is saying so you can properly weigh its worth. Don’t be afraid to ask them questions to clarify what they mean. Then if you don’t like it, smile, nod and wait. Sometimes it’s taken me a full twenty-four hours of dwelling on someone’s feedback before I slap my forehead and mutter, “Dang it. She’s right.”

On the flip side of that, make your own decisions. Don’t take everything you’re told – by the instructor/leader or your fellow participants – as gospel. Only you can decide what is truly useful. Sometimes you’ll receive completely contradictory feedback! Again, clarify, wait, and then decide whether any of it is worth paying attention to.

And finally, participate. You’re paying money to learn, so jump in and share, give feedback, and take part in discussions. We all have different experiences and abilities. You can learn a lot from other workshop attendees – and they can learn a lot from you.

Care to share any of your writing workshop experiences? Any particularly fabulous ones? Any horror stories?

In honor of the recent release of Wined and Died, you can enter to win a free Author Website ($900 value!) from the creative folks at Bizango Websites for Writers until July 29, 2011. For more details and information on how to enter, please visit my blog, Hearth Cricket. For more information about me or the Home Crafting Mystery Series, check out my website.


Cricket, thanks so much for being here today. I'm looking forward to another good Sophie Mae read in Wined and Died.

This blog stop is part of Cricket's virtual tour for the new release. To find the posts at other stops and to see Cricket's list of appearances and book signings, visit the News and Events page at her website.


Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Thanks for hosting Cricket.

Cricket - Thanks so much for your insights into what makes for an excellent workshop. Fortunately, there are a lot of good workshops out there, and if a writer is thoughtful and does a little digging, she or he can find the right match of workshop to needs.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Never attended a workshop. I'm sure I could never lead one, either!

irishoma said...

Hi Pat and Cricket,
Interesting post about workshops. Guess it boils down to listening, learning, then taking responsibility for your own work.
Donna V.

Cricket McRae said...

Margot, you're right -- just takes a little research!

Alex, I never took a creative writing class in college -- the very thought was frightening! But for me, workshops are a different matter altogether. Love 'em.

Indeed, Donna -- the key word is responsibility. And it helps to keep an open mind. : )

Terry Odell said...

Hi, Cricket --

I so agree about people skilled in their field not necessarily being great speakers. Nothing worse than going to a workshop where the speaker merely reads the handout you have in front of you. I always try to make mine as interactive as possible (bribing those who participate with chocolate can help!)

I'll be giving a workshop on Point of View at the Emerald City conference in October, and I hope the attendees get something out of it (assuming they show up for the first workshop of the day!)

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

John Paul McKinney said...

This is very valuable advice. Thank you. The most helpful workshops for me were those where the instructor was genuinely interested in what we were writing and in helping us do it better. Sounds obvious, but it isn't always the case. Thanks for your many insights.

Marlena Cassidy said...

Hi Patricia. Thank you for hosting Cricket.

I've never been to a workshop for writing before, but if it's anything like other workshops I have been to, I'm sure I'll enjoy one. As long as it's taught by a good speaker/teacher that is!

By the way, Cricket, I love the cover for your book. The colors are just beautiful.

Cricket McRae said...

Hi Terry -- the more interactive, the better! Have a great time at the Emerald City conference, and think of me when you're shopping in Bellevue Square ; )

John, an instructor who is genuinely interested in helping other writers is gold! (And you're right -- you'd think that would be obvious.)

Marlena, I feel so lucky to have the cover artist that I do. Funny -- I sent her that bottle of mead so she'd have it for the photo shoot. The contents were a bonus!

Patricia Stoltey said...

I've been to so many writing workshops over the years I can't begin to count them all, but my absolute favorite was the SinC into Writing workshop the day before Bouchercon 2009 when literary agent Donald Maass did his "Fire in Fiction" instruction. It was topnotch.

Cricket McRae said...

Don Maass is a great instructor -- how cool that you got to take that workshop, Pat.

And thank you for hosting me today!

Edna Pontillo said...

Thanks, Pat, for introducing me to Cricket and her website. And thank you, Cricket, for your suggestions regarding writing workshops. I agree with Irishoma and John about taking responsibility for our own learning and also about what we think should be obvious so often is not. Terry, the best workshops I've been to in ANY field are those that are active, but meaningfully so. Thanks, again.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Cricket, thanks again for being my guest today. I wish you great success with Wined and Died and your upcoming series with Penguin as well.

And thanks to everyone who stopped by today to read Cricket's post, and a special thank you to those who left comments. Much appreciated.

Dean K Miller said...

I found the key component in being attending a workshop which is level appropriate, which requires some research and work on our part. As well, we need to be honest with ourselves about our current abilities, strengths and weaknesses. Then joining in the fray and making the most of our time there.

Thanks for this!

Michelle Mach said...

I took a revision workshop with Nancy Pickard years ago and it was amazing. I still use the tips I picked up from the class.

I also once took a workshop with a writer who was a bit hungover from the previous night. The only thing I remember about that workshop was her!

Peter Springberg said...

Excellent post, Cricket. I went to a national meeting (SCBWI) when I first started writing and found the workshops were far too advanced for my level of competence.

Now I'm at least somewhat more knowledgable and much more selective in my choices. A great teacher/writer is a jewel whatever their genre.

Cricket McRae said...

Thanks for stopping by, Edna. I agree personal responsibility is the key to learning anything meaningful.

Dean, good point about being honest with ourselves about strengths and weaknesses.

Lol, Michelle re: the hung over instructor. But I bet any workshop with Nancy Pickard would be awesome.

Thanks for stopping by, Peter. It was good to see you at the Judith Guest/Rebecca Hill workshop last month (or was it longer ago?)!

June Shaw said...

What excellent advice, Cricket! Thanks for sharing it. And best of luck with your new books!

pam2spicy said...

Thanks Pat for hosting Cricket. This was timely information and helpful also to critique groups! Pam Wolf

Lori DeBoer Writing Coach said...

Thanks, Pat, for hosting Cricket and Cricket, for touching on such an important topic and giving such sensible advice. If anybody is in the Boulder area and is looking for a critique group, please have them check out the Boulder Writers' Workshop ( I'm a writing coach and I founded it to give writers a guided experience.


Cricket McRae said...

Thanks, June!

Glad you found the post helpful, Pam.

Lori, thanks for sharing the link!